Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the United States. In fact, it’s estimated that – this year alone – some 137,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and another 50,000 will die from the disease. As startling as those statistics are, it’s even more shocking to learn these facts…
Fully 90 percent of colorectal cancer can be prevented.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – an ideal time to discover the steps that can be taken to prevent this deadly disease. Those who are age 50 or older should pay particular attention, because 90 percent of new colorectal-cancer cases occur in this age group. Other at-risk groups include African Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Jews of Eastern-European descent. Heredity also plays a role, in that those who have a family history of colorectal cancer are at a two-to-three times greater risk of developing the disease. Additional risk factors include having: inflammatory bowel disease; Crohn’s disease; ulcerative colitis; or a genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer.
Colorectal Cancer Overview
The colon and rectum, which are part of the digestive system, together form what’s referred to as the large intestine. The upper four to six feet of the large intestine constitutes the colon, while the lower five to six inches is the rectum.
Colorectal cancer – which is often referred to as colon cancer – occurs when cells within the colon or rectum become abnormal and grow uncontrollably. The majority of colorectal cancers can be traced to the cells lining the inside wall of the colon and rectum.
Polyps that take root in the colon or rectum are often a precursor to colon cancer. Although polyps initially are noncancerous, they frequently become cancerous, and thus should be removed.
Like many cancers, colorectal cancer often isn’t accompanied by symptoms. When symptoms do present, however, they include:
- a change in bowel habits;
- blood in the stool that is either bright red or very dark;
- diarrhea, constipation, or a feeling that the bowel is not emptying completely;
- stools that are very narrow;
- frequent gas pains, bloating, cramps, or a sense of fullness;
- unexplained weight loss.
Screenings are Crucial
Being screened for colorectal cancer is central to either preventing the disease entirely, or at least detecting it early when it’s most treatable. In fact, roughly nine out of 10 people whose colon cancers are diagnosed and treated early are still alive five years later. It’s currently recommended that screenings start at age 50 and continue until age 75 for the average-risk population, and at 40 years of age (in some instances younger) for those in high-risk groups.
The most common colon-cancer screenings are:
- Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) – This is a noninvasive test in which a stool sample is lab tested to determine if there’s blood in the stool, which could by a sign of cancer or advanced polyps. If the result is positive, the person likely would be scheduled for a colonoscopy. FOBT should be repeated annually.
- Colonoscopy – Using a colonoscope, a gastroenterologist peers inside the large intestine, looking for early warning signs of colon or rectal cancer. During the procedure, most polyps and some cancers can be removed. Unless you’re in a high-risk group, colonoscopies are only needed every 10 years.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy – In this procedure, a thin, lighted tube – called a sigmoidoscope – is used to scan the rectum and lower colon for polyps, tumors, or any other abnormalities.
One in three adults – ages 50 to 75 – are not up-to-date with the recommended colon-cancer screenings. If you’re in this age segment, make a commitment right now to not be a member of this group. Get screened!